Ask Me: What’s the Best Ultralight Thru-Hiking Backpack?
I’m looking for a backpack for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I am considering some Osprey packs and others. What to you recommend as the best thru-hiking backpack?
Congratulations on your plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, I hope it goes really well for you.
As I wrote in my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpacking Pack,” when ultralight backpacking, as you’ll do on a thru-hike, I want a lightweight backpack with minimal features like pockets and zippers. Still, I like the convenience of quick access for some items, like a lid, side, and/or hipbelt pockets for snacks, map, sunglasses, and sunblock, and a mesh front pocket where I can stuff a jacket.
Packs made for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking typically weigh between two and 2.5 pounds, and have support for carrying 25 to 30 or 35 pounds—and as you probably know, you should only carry the upper end of that weight range on longer stretches of trail where you have several days’ worth of food. Get a pack somewhere between 40 to 60 liters capacity. You’ll want gear that is light and compact. (See all of my reviews of ultralight backpacking gear, backpacking tents, hiking shoes, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads, and my Gear Reviews page for numerous stories with my picks for best gear and tips on buying gear.)
The pack you choose will depend on personal preferences regarding design features, price, weight, and capacity. There are several backpacks that stand out in this category.
For a top thru-hiker pack, especially if you like Osprey, I suggest you look at the Osprey Exos 58 ($220, 2 lbs. 8 oz.) or Exos 48 ($200, 2 lbs. 5 oz.). The women’s version is the Eja 58 and Eja 48. I used the Exos 58 on a four-day, 86-mile backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park, carrying up to 25 pounds, and on a weeklong hut trek in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. (My friend, Todd, is carrying the first generation of the Exos 58 in the Wind River Range in the lead photo, above.)
The top-loading Exos carries up to 30 pounds comfortably thanks to a perimeter frame made of 6065 aluminum with a stabilizing cross strut, giving it stability along both its vertical and horizontal axes, transferring much of the pack weight onto your hips, where you want it. I’ve liked that pack a lot since the first version of it came out in 2008.
Read my review of the Exos 58.
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I also like the Gregory men’s Optic 58 and women’s Octal 55 ($210, 2 lbs. 7 oz.), and the smaller Optic 48 and Octal 45 ($190), because they are designed for backpackers who want to go ultralight without switching to a stripped-down style of backpack. I found it comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds backpacking the Grand Canyon’s rugged Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim.
These packs sport six external pockets, including two on the hipbelt and a large, stretch-mesh front pocket, and useful features like a quick attachment on the left shoulder strap for trekking poles or sunglasses. Gregory’s attention to comfort in its first ultralight backpack is reflected in the aluminum perimeter wire with an HDPE framesheet and leaf-spring lumbar pad, which distributes most of the pack’s load across the hips and delivers support for carrying 30 to 35 pounds; and the trampoline-style Aerospan suspension, a tensioned, highly ventilated back panel that allows allow air movement across your sweaty back.
Read my review of the Gregory Optic 58 and Octal 55.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider ($340) weighs just two pounds, has removable aluminum stays and a harness system that I found comfortable carrying 30 to 35 pounds, and is made with waterproof (and practically bulletproof) Dyneema fabric. Its minimalist design features three roomy, exterior mesh pockets and zippered hipbelt pockets, and a roll-top closure with top and side compression for stabilizing under-filled loads. For its weight, it offers unique carrying comfort and capacity for long trips.
Read my complete review of the 3400 Windrider.
The Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40-60 ($200), whose signature feature is a compression system that allows you to alter the pack’s capacity to fit whatever you’re carrying, making it more stable with a small load. At 2 lbs. 9 oz., it’s heavier than others but still a legitimate ultralight backpack, and I’ve found it comfortable hauling 30 to 35 pounds, thanks in part to a sturdier (though still streamlined) hipbelt than is found in some ultralight packs. It has quick, one-zipper access to the main compartment, and five external pockets (lid, side, and hipbelt).
Read my review of the Flex Capacitor 40-60.
The REI Flash 45 ($149), updated in 2017, is not only a steal, but it sports nice design features for ultralight backpacking, including six external pockets; it also weighs close to three pounds, heavier than others listed here. A steel, internal perimeter frame with one horizontal stay, plus a contoured hipbelt and well-padded shoulder straps make it comfortable carrying 25 to 30 pounds, and REI’s UpLift compression system squeezes the load from the bottom to draw it closer to your hips.
Read my complete review of the Flash 45.
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The ULA Circuit ($235) weighs in at 2 lbs. 9 oz., but it’s spacious at 68 liters, and its roll-top closure extends farther than many competitors, giving you more capacity when needed. With a carbon fiber and Delrin suspension, a dense foam frame and an aluminum stay, it will carry up to 30 pounds comfortably, and the hipbelt and shoulder straps come in multiple sizes for customizing the fit for men or women. ULA’s 210 Robic fabric is highly durable, and the pack has a huge external front pocket.
The Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60 ($215-$260) has more capacity than many two-pound packs, comes in a wide range of torso lengths and hipbelt sizes, and has side pockets made of more-durable fabric, rather than mesh. It has a removable internal frame and seven pockets, while weighing under 2 pounds, and comes in three torso and three hipbelt sizes.
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If you scroll through all of my backpack reviews and my review of the 10 best packs for backpacking, you’ll find other models I really like, but most range from around three-and-a-half pounds to five pounds.
Good luck with your thru-hike. I’d love to hear what you pick for a pack and how the trip goes for you.
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